In the fourth in his series of six articles, our art critic Malcolm Storer examines and dissects some of the supreme masterpieces of Western Art, scrutinising the artists who made them, and why, when and where they were created.
‘Obnoxious Liberals’ by John-Michel Basquiat
New York. !980. After years of civic corruption, the Big Apple is on the brink of bankruptcy. The art world, too, is in a similar moribund state, with figurative painting sliding further and further towards abstraction.
From the litter-strewn streets and boarded-up buildings of Manhattan’s Lower East Side comes a saviour — homeless, twenty-year-old graffiti artist John-Michel Basquiat.
Seven years later Basquiat would be dead from a drug overdose. But during those seven extraordinarily creative years his Neo-Expressionist paintings blazed like a comet across the art world, propelling him to global fame.
Doors that were once closed to black painters were suddenly flung open as prestigious museums and collectors fell over themselves to acquire his work.
Born in Brooklyn to a Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother, John- Michel used this culturally diverse background to fuel his raw, gestural style that mixed the outsider language of graffiti, scrawled text, corporate symbols and African iconography to express his experiences within the black community.
His explosive canvasses take aim at the power structures and systematic racism prevalent in the US, as well as celebrating African American heroes such as jazz musicians, sports stars and writers.
Although he had no formal training as a painter, Basquiat was a keen student of art history.
Every Wednesday he and close friend DJ Fab 5 Freddie would visit New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to study the works of Caravaggio, Titian and Picasso.John-Michel Basquiat
Back in his studio, like some talismanic shaman, he mixed and blended the visual imagery of these masters with the clatter of the subway and the chaotic beats of Hip Hop.
His 1982 painting ‘Obnoxious Liberals’ is a case in point. A political work, it is a poke in the eye of the establishment. Referencing the legacy of the slave trade, it highlights not only the lack of social progress made by black people in modern-day America but also his stormy relationship with collectors.
Chained to a set of pillars on the left beneath a sign proclaiming ‘Samson’, the helpless black victim (Basquiat himself, perhaps?) is at the mercy of white capitalist America — the bearded cowboy on the right emblazoned with dollar sighs, the Uncle Sam figure in the centre resplendent in his tall black hat, the words ‘Not For Sale’ scrawled across his chest.
To me this figure is an amalgam of two images — the image of the greedy collector, and the image of Abraham Lincoln who famously abolished slavery.
What Basquiat is saying is that, despite Lincoln’s best efforts, black people were still as downtrodden and oppressed as they had always been.
A sobering work of art for these troubled times